GLOBAL ECONOMIC VIEWPOINT
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY CLOSING IN MIDDLE EAST
Yossi Beilin is the chairman of the Yachad Party in Israel, was the Israeli architect of the Geneva Initiative, and is the author of the recently published "The Path to Geneva: The Quest for a Permanent Agreement, 1996-2004."
By Yossi Beilin
JERUSALEM — Right before our very eyes, we are witnessing how a rare opportunity for an uncompromising war against terrorism and for a resolute political process between Israel and the Palestinians is being missed.
The democratic election of Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority opened a window of opportunity for close cooperation between Ariel Sharon's government and the new Palestinian government to battle against terrorism and to implement the "road map" to which the two sides are allegedly committed.
Nice words are being spoken by all sides. The speeches made by Abbas are moderate and positive. Everyone considers him to be a potential partner for a political process and praises the election process in the Palestinian Authority.
Sharon, who talks about the importance of the period of calm, met with the Palestinian president in Sharm el Sheikh, thus resuming the dialogue between them, which was cut off about two years ago.
U.S. President George W. Bush is pleased about the opportunity that has arisen; he has invited Sharon to his ranch and Abbas to the White House — and suddenly everyone is starting to visit the Middle East again. A steady stream of presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers have been visiting Sharon's office in Jerusalem and Abbas' office in Ramallah, after years during which the international community was wary of getting too close to the Middle East. Are we at last close to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
No. Definitely not. It's true that the period of calm that has arisen is authentic and that the election of Abbas is indeed an important change. But if no genuine moves are made, the period of calm will become nothing more than a temporary lull, after which the violence is likely to return to the area.
The seeds planted today are likely to turn this violence into a type even more dangerous than its predecessor.
Sharon is proceeding with his unilateral withdrawal plan from the Gaza Strip, as if Arafat were still the governor of Ramallah and there were no partner to talk to. He does not intend to remove the illegal outposts that have been set up since he was elected prime minister in March 2001, and the construction in the settlements in the West Bank has continued in total disregard of the commitment that Israel took upon itself in the first phase of the road map.
Day after day, reports are published in Israel about intentions of building in the area between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim and of setting up new Israeli neighborhoods in the occupied territories. If some of those intentions are realized,it would be a severe blow to the contiguity of the Palestinian state. Members of Sharon's entourage are hinting that after the withdrawal from Gaza, there will be no more political progress and this withdrawal will be, so it would appear, the most far-reaching political move ever made by Sharon.
Abbas won in the elections in which Hamas did not field a candidate against him. But in the last municipal elections, Hamas won, and part of Abbas' movement, the Fatah, finds itself embroiled in a violent, internal struggle as it gears toward the elections for the legislative council of the Palestinian Authority, which are due to be held in less than four months.
In this circumstances, Abbas is not capable of proving to his people that his policy, which is different, will bring them a better life. He is finding himself forced to fall into the arms of his sworn enemies — the Islamic Jihad and Hamas — and to reach agreement with them on an obscure formula for a respite in the violence and on a political formula regarding a solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees, which is far more extreme than his own approach and the decision, in this regard, of the Arab Summit of March 2002.
The White House, which since 9/11 has turned the war against terrorism into the most important issue on the agenda, looks at the odd meeting in Cairo, under the auspices of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and with the participation of the various Palestinian terrorist organizations who appear on the Palestinian terrorism list, as if it were an international conference on questions regarding intellectual property. Instead of setting new dates for the implementation of the "road map," all of whose dates have already passed, President Bush announced that he "hates artificial dates."
Abbas announced that he has no intention whatsoever of holding talks with Sharon about the second phase of the "road map," which concerns the Palestinian state with provisional borders, because he is afraid that the national conflict will be transformed into an ordinary border dispute between the two states and that Sharon will perpetuate this interim arrangement endlessly.
Sharon is not exactly dreaming about negotiations with Abbas on the permanent status agreement, and neither side is complying with the commitments that it undertook in the first phase of the map. If it becomes clear that the political vision after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is a mere farce, then it will only be a matter of time before the violence breaks out again.
Bush's second term as president began with promising declarations regarding the Middle East, but it would appear that in practice it is repeating the weakness of the first term. The U.S.is looking on helplessly as the parties fail to follow through on their commitments, the terrorist organizations acquire legitimization and the construction of the settlements continues. President Bush makes do with declarations of no real substance regarding the fulfillment of his vision for the Middle East.
There is still time to do something. The Palestinian government is still in pragmatic hands. The large majority on both sides is ready for the permanent status agreement and is prepared to pay its price.
Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip could become the beginning of a political process, leading to a peace agreement. The U.S. could wipe off the dust from the "road map" and assist in monitoring the implementation of the first phase and in encouraging the two sides to cooperate with one another in order to reach a permanent status agreement. If no move is made soon, the facts on the ground will very probably close the window of opportunity.
(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint